When German speakers learn English as a foreign language, there are many aspects of their pronunciation which can ‘give them away’ as being a German speaker. Some of these are very obvious and have been the butt of many jokes (See the Berlitz language school advert: “We are sinking” ~ “What are you (th)sinking?”). However, more advance learners soon fix these pronunciation errors. There are, however, a couple of aspects of pronunciation that can still make a German sound German when speaking English – and one of them is devoicing. Although most English native speakers may not notice this ‘unusual’ pronunciation, teachers will definitely pick up on it, and it can sometimes have important effects on the communication of meaning. This post should help teachers and German speakers understand what is meant by “devoicing” and what exactly leads to this pronunciation problem.
First of all, we need to understand a little bit of phonology. Namely the point that consonant sounds in English are either voiced or voiceless. When voiced sounds are produced, the vocal chords are close together and the air flow has to force its way through, which causes the vocal chords to vibrate. If you feel your throat whilst saying ‘mmmmm’, you should feel these vibrations.
In contrast, when voiceless sounds are produced, the vocal chords are apart, and the air flow can pass through without causing the vocal chords to vibrate (= no vibrations!). If you feel your throat and say ‘fffff’, you shouldn’t feel any vibrations.
You can find more information on which sounds are voiced and voiceless here: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~krussll/phonetics/articulation/describing-consonants.html
This distinction between voiced and voiceless sounds is also accompanied by another feature which helps us to distinguish the sounds of English: the force with which the air flow is pushed out.
Voiced sounds are usually made with relatively weak breath force, and little muscular tension (because the vocal chords vibrate to make the sound, strong aspiration isn’t needed). This is called lenis articulation.
In contrast, voiceless sounds are usually made with more breath force and higher muscular tension (because there are no vibrations, strong aspiration is needed to make the sound). This is called fortis articulation.
So, generally: voiced = lenis and voiceless = fortis
Devoicing is what we call it when a sound that is usually voiced, or ‘lenis’, is articulated with less vibration than usual, or no vibration at all. In most cases, it is plosives and fricatives where devoicing is most noticeable. Because of the weak breath force of lenis sounds, though, it is still possible to distinguish a devoiced/lenis sound from the voiceless/fortis sound articulated in the same place and manner, which will be produced with more aspiration.
For example, when devoiced, /b/ can still be distinguished from /p/ (the voiceless consonant articulated in the same place and manner), because /p/ is fortis and we can hear the difference in the force of articulation.
When this devoicing can happen in English depends on the phonetic environment, i.e. the other sounds that are around the sound we are looking at. For example, at the ends of words, the vibration of the vocal chords is generally slightly less strong than at the start or in the middle of a word, and so consonants at the ends of words are often devoiced. This means that the pronunciation of /b/ in the words ‘bath’ and ‘cab’ can be slightly different in that the /b/ in ‘cab’ can be pronounced with less vibration, but basically they are the same sound – and not devoicing would also be acceptable.
In contrast, in German, the consonants at the ends of morphemes are always voiceless – this is not a devoicing of the voiced sound (where we would still distinguish it based on the force of aspiration), but the sound is actually a voiceless/fortis sound in its own right. For example, the standard pronunciation of the German words ‘Rad’ (bike) and ‘Rat’ (advice) is the same, and the consonant sound at the end of both words is /t/, the voiceless alveolar plosive.
In many regions (often around Trier, where I teach!), plosives are also often devoiced in German when they are at the beginning of a word or morpheme and are followed by /r/ or /l/. Although this is non-standard, it is very common. Think of, for example, the colours /plaʊ/ and /kraʊ/ 🙂
Many Germans learning English have difficulties with devoicing, as they transfer what they do in German pronunciation to their English pronunciation, and simply replace the voiced sound with its voiceless equivalent. However, the strong aspiration highlights their mistake. Using a voiceless/fortis sound instead of a devoiced/lenis sound not only sounds very unnatural, but it can also change your meaning entirely! For example, imagine on a camping trip you say to a friend, /pli:z pʊt ðɪs naɪf ɪn maɪ bæk/ !!!